European Fashion Heritage Association

Journal Fashion & History

The Paper Dolls of Anne Sanders Wilson

English fashionfashion historyfashion illustration

Fashion tales told through paper toys

Paper dolls are two-dimensional figures representing a vast variety of subjects, as people, animals or objects. Printed or hand drawn, paper dolls were widely used throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as toys for children, or as a funny entertainment for wealthy adults.

In 1832, Anne Sanders Wilson used paper dolls to illustrate the tale of redemption of a ‘fashion-stricken’ young lady, Miss Wildfire. The paper dolls came each with a hat and eight different outfits, from a maid’s dress in blue with a striped apron to a fancy dress in ‘Vandyke’ style, all in watercolour on card.

The paper dolls came alongside a manuscript called ‘The History of Miss Wildfire’, and were used to visualise the misadventures of the protagonist; she used to dress with fancy clothes, then she descended into poverty after the death of her father and was forced to earn her keep as a lace-maker. Eventually, she managed to ‘redeem’ herself with marriage and conversion to Quakerism.

Anne Sanders Wilson’s paper dolls constitute a recollection of costumes from the second half of the 1820s to the early 1830s; they range from fancy, fashionable clothes to working class and occupational dresses. Despite their recreational purpose, these dolls, manufactured in London in the first decade of the nineteenth century, became a far-reaching mean to create fashion stories and contribute to the diffusion of styles.

In fashion, in fact, paper dolls covered an important role in the diffusion of the latest trends. In this sense, paper dolls were used since the second half of the eighteenth century in fashion cities like Vienna, London or Paris. They were sometimes created by dressmakers to show current styles not only in clothes, but also in coiffures and accessories. For the speed with which printed fashion images could be distributed, paper dolls became a favourite medium to spread information about fashion, characterizing the period from circa 1825 to 1850.